Blues music has a storied history. Its origins go back to the Deep South of the United States in the 1860s where it emerged from the African American communities and at first, was performed by Southern Black men. Due to a lack of technology, the first Blues recording is unknown, though one lady, Mamie Smith, can be credited with the first known recording.
Mamie Smith was a pioneer. Her resume included everything from pianist to dancer, actress and of course, singer. She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1891 and was bitten by the entertainment bug early on. She began her career at the age of ten as a dancer with the Four Dancing Mitchells and was the only Black member. After some time, she eventually would join Salem Tutt Whitney‘s Smart Set, as both a singer and dancer, though she would eventually leave the Tutt Brothers after getting married and decided to pursue her real passion, which was singing. She secured a few gigs in clubs in upper Manhattan and it was full steam ahead.
What Mamie didn’t know was that she was about to make it. In 1919, Perry Bradford, an African American pianist, was itching to have his music recorded. He was convinced that there was a market for African American music and was persistent in breaking color barriers. Unfortunately, it was an uphill battle with the record companies in the New York Area. He stuck to his guns and managed to get Okeh Records on board a year later. Okeh had received tremendous pressure from Northern and Southern groups if they decided to record a Black artist, though it didn’t faze them.
Perry Bradford brought Mamie Smith into the studio to get this process started. Their business relationship began a few years earlier when she starred in Made in Harlem, a musical revue produced by Bradford. In February of 1920, he brought Mamie Smith to the Okeh Studios where she would record “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” They would sell a little less than a million copies in a year, mostly by African American consumers, proving Bradford’s hunch to be true.
Even though the two songs were successful, it wasn’t until later that year that she would record her biggest hit to date. After Sophie Tucker, a white Blues musician fell ill in August of that year, Bradford brought Smith back into the studio, again after convincing the label it was the right thing to do. For context, Mamie Smith was a Vaudeville performer up to this point with little to no Blues experience. That was the day she recorded Perry Bradford’s song “Crazy Blues”, marking a historic milestone in the history of Blues music. Not only was it the first major Blues recording, but it was also the first Blues recording by a Black artist, breaking barriers, and beginning the emergence of Black female singers into popular music culture. The record allegedly sold a million copies in the first year. It earned her a whopping $100,000 in royalties – unheard of at the time.
Following the success of “Crazy Blues”, Mamie recorded about 60 singles for the Okeh label, though much of the material was closer to Vaudeville than Blues. Regardless, “Crazy Blues” still opened doors for other Black artists and help commercialize Blues music.
Michael Taft, Head of Staff at the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress would correctly point out “Mamie Smith and her recording was like the opening shot. I think the Black public was ready to start buying records, there was enough of a working class with money that were ready, willing and able to buy recordings that were coming out of their own culture.”
This opened the door for more touring throughout the 1920s, securing weekly stops in major cities and smaller towns with her band The Jazz Hounds before retiring from performing in 1931. At this point, she had hit her peak in terms of popularity. In those days, it was “hit-and-run”, meaning several musicians had their hits and then the industry evolved on to something else.
Due to her recent declining popularity, lack of work and the amount of money she spent during her heyday on outfits, by the time she passed in 1946 she was reportedly penniless. Her musical legacy lives on to this day, even if it’s unacknowledged. Mamie Smith had something beautiful and groundbreaking to offer the music world, and while many don’t know her name to this day, she is the one that paved the way for Black female musicians that came after her.